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Active Learning/ReLearning – Jackie Shane, The Bathhouse Raids, and Will Munro

Runs, Tours & Experiences Posted on Thu, July 02, 2020 06:10PM

The ‘Pride’ celebration in Toronto is a daily feature on the social feeds of several friends. It looks fun, colourful, inclusive and with just the right amount of political and social commentary. The posts help me realise that I don’t know much at all about gay history or life here, or the motivation behind the celebration. It doesn’t feel right to be as ignorant about something that’s clearly so important to some of my friends. Time to get my running shoes on and go to school! 

To begin this week’s learning I have a look at the ‘Driftscape’ App that features material from an organisation called ‘Queerstory’ (https://www.queerstory.ca/), and skim and follow links until I find something that really catches my attention.

“I have never felt that I had to change or do anything that wasn’t natural to me. I will never, ever be some kind of wishy-washy creature that pretends or lets others guide me. I guide my life. It is mine. No matter what anyone says, I’m going to be Jackie. That’s all I can be. That’s all I know. It’s what I feel from my heart and my soul. If I was not doing what makes me live the way I do, makes me think, makes me feel, makes me be the person I am, then there’s no point in me being at all. I’ve got to be who I am. Most people are planted in someone else’s soil, which means they’re a carbon copy. I say to them, uproot yourself. Get into your own soil. You may be surprised who you really are.”

I read this and know that I want to know more about the speaker. Then I hear her sing…

This is Tina Turner, Little Richard, and James Brown meets the Northern Soul and Ska sounds of my youth. There are chord changes and grooves in there that a remix DJ could blend seamlessly with Hendrix (listen to ‘Walking The Dog” alongside ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Can You See Me’). And a controlled rawness that suggests the earth using a human voice as a conduit for ‘original expression’. This is fantastic. This is Jackie Shane.

I listen – and read – on. Jackie was a black transgender artist who for a few years in the mid to late 60’s was one of the most popular singers in Toronto. By all accounts she never tried to hide any aspect of herself, appearing dressed in a way that caused many to ask if she as male or female and encouraging people to express themselves any which way they chose. “Baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing” she’d rap between verses in the song ‘Money’, “as long as you don’t force your will or your way on anybody else, live your life, because there ain’t nobody sanctified and holy…”. 

With those words Jackie was urging us to climb out of the coffins that are there to compartmentalise personal issues like gender, or how we express ourselves creatively, and once we get clear of them to look at ourselves and society with clearer vision. David Bowie and Will Munro also offered us the same advice, and in doing so they all helped to create fertile ground for increased personal contentment and harmony, as well as societal change.

I understand that I’m being very basic in my introduction but one of the points of these learning/relearning runs is to face up to how little I know, and to do so in plain language. To admit ignorance, to own it and talk of it, and then to attempt to change the situation for the better. We also, I think, need to relearn trust for the media, and that starts with people like me not hiding behind words or using them for some other purpose than honest communication. Keep it simple, keep it honest, don’t try to convince anybody I’m smart, just talk straight from the heart. Write like I’m offering a Swahili handshake. That’s where I’m coming from.

I discover a little more – where Jackie used to play in Toronto, the location of her mural downtown – and am eager to construct a run to see it all but decide to learn more about the history of the gay scene in Toronto first. Intending to spend a few post-breakfast hours researching I find so much material that it seems wise to settle in for the day and postpone the run.

A couple of links I would advise anybody interested in recent gay history in Toronto to check out are;

1/ The 1981 Toronto bathhouse riots

2/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5216&v=iN4_8eurids&feature=emb_logo This 90 minute film (which is also embedded in the article above), is an introduction to the recent history of the Toronto gay scene focusing on the 1981 Bathhouse police raids/abuse and subsequent protests. It’s an excellent film that really added to my understanding

3/ This wiki link is also very good for LGBTQ info in general – https://lgbt.wikia.org/wiki/Main_Page

The next morning I’ve a long list of places to visit and an easy run to start with along College St through Little Italy, heading for the newly renovated ‘El Mocambo’ club on Spadina Ave.

Just after I’ve passed Sneaky Dee’s I’m stopped sharply by this sculpture outside St Stephen in the Fields Church. It reminds me of the ‘Anonymous’ statue in Budapest and it’s positioning – low on the ground, devoid of pedestal, and not drawing any attention to itself in any way – makes it all the more powerful. The statue, created by sculptor Timothy Schmalz (who also has his work installed in churches in Rome and at the Vatican), is titled ‘Jesus the Panhandler’. It offers a visual representation of charity, and is a reference to Jesus’s statement, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

There is no explanation board or title displayed so passers by are asked to consider, who could this beggar be? Somebody we know? Us? So many of us are just a few paychecks away from this reality. Covid has put many out of work and the governmental handouts aren’t available for everybody. According to a recent city survey, more than 5,000 people are homeless in Toronto, including an increasing number of seniors. Some spend the night in shelters, others in parks and ravines, or on street corners. Some, especially those who sleep outdoors, rely on panhandling for their basic needs.

The panhandler depicted by this bronze cast is a silent, huddled figure, a person whom crowds walk by and ignore. But if you look carefully at his hands you will see the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.

This sculpture asks us to look again, and to look carefully, and to see that the person before us is, indeed, the presence of Christ for us in this moment. Christ comes to us in the hungry, the needy, the marginalized and lonely, and demands our response.

“Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (from the First Letter of John).

Seeing this message is, I believe, a perfect way to start today’s run. Whatever our gender, our colour, our faith, or our species, we are each the incarnation of that which we worship. We would do well to bear this in mind as we make our way through this short life that we’ve been gifted.

Just around the corner is El Mocambo.

Will Munro – a gay artist, club promoter, activist, and fellow vegan – will be the first influential gay figure I meet on my running tour today (he’ll also be the final; I’ll finish at the cafe he co-founded on Queen West, ‘The Beaver’). He hosted the hybrid music and art parties ‘Vazaleen’ at El Mocambo in the early-2000’s as a way of creating an inclusive venue outside of the city’s Church Street scene. He said at the time of starting the club, “I’d like to do something that’ll encompass all the freaks out there, myself included…”

“When I started doing Vazaleen I was like, finally there is a space where you can do fucking anything and no one is going to turn their nose up at you.” Will Munro.

Toronto has seemed a beige, cold, frightened, bloodless sort of city at times since I arrived in 2015 but learning about Will, his work and his friends has helped me see it as far more human, and admirable. In the online interviews and statements I’ve found he comes across as sweet, humorous and inclusive when discussing and planning his work, and rarely with a bad word to say about anybody. Other artists may ‘wow’ you with their work – prolific, inventive, and fascinating Picasso is a fine example. But when you read about how he lived, his tantrums, his poor treatment of people around him, the self aggrandisement, he comes across as the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to spend much time around. Will is different. His work is good and occasionally great yet where he consistently shines is in his daily life, how he treated others and offered hope and inspiration, and also stayed alive as an artist whilst fight a continual battle against a conservative, claustrophobic, homophobic and frightened society. Hence I believe that to get the most from Will you need to spend some time around the work and interviews he left behind, as well as commentaries that others have made.

Here’s a short intro to his work. The first video features footage of his club nights at El Mocambo.

And Will talking about being an artist.

I really enjoyed this next short film by Will. The music, footage and feel has clear lineage from Warhol’s ‘Factory’ and The Velvet Underground but it’s also very much its own thing.

‘Now’ magazine wrote of Will’s club night, “These days it’s normal in Toronto for hip gay scenes to flourish outside of the queer centre and to attract a wide spectrum of genders and orientations, but that didn’t really happen until Vazaleen took off and became a veritable community for everyone who didn’t fit into the mainstream homo world. For too long, it was too rare to see dykes, fags, trans people, and breeders hanging out together, and Munro changed that.”

First new word of the day for me (and there will be many) is ‘breeders’. In short, Breeder is a slang term (either joking or derogatory) used to describe straight people, primarily by gays. But like much terminology it’s not as simple as that and since it’s easy to trip yourself up or offend by getting things mixed up, it’s not a bad idea to check the urban dictionary – https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Breeder

Finally, you can find out more about Will Munro here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Munro

And his parties at El Mocambo here – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/el-mocambo/

Whilst researching the El Mocambo venue I also discovered that the Rolling Stones recorded a live album there in 1977. You can hear the Stones ‘Route 66’ live at El Mocambo here.

Other acts to have played El Mocambo include Blondie, U2, Duran Duran, Jimi Hendrix and The Cars. I’d have liked to have worked as a sound man from, say, ‘67 to ‘83, what a life that would’ve been! A general history of the El Mocambo venue is here – https://torontoist.com/2014/09/a-brief-history-of-the-legendary-el-mocambo/

I jog down Spadina with the Stones’ Route 66 playing on the headphones, it’s a solid running soundtrack as I veer right into Kensington Market, a favourite part of Toronto for me. It’s where I stayed when I first visited the city in 2012. There’s more than a hint of the optimism, equality and energy of the 60’s here, every second person seems like an individual (which is a pretty good average in a modern city) and they know it. I love the place.

Heading through central Toronto I pass ‘The Corners’, the area around the intersection of Bay St and Queen St which in the 1940’s and 50’s was a mingling point for closeted Bay Street business, rent boys, and straight trade. Along Richmond now, not so much traffic makes for easy running, and the sky is dramatic.

Before long I’m at 20 Richmond Street East, home to Confederation Life Insurance and formerly a live music venue called the Saphire Tavern.

It was here at The Saphire that Jackie Shane had a residency in the 60’s, recorded her live album in 1967, and made a name for herself as an astonishing talent. She had chances to make a bigger name for herself outside of Toronto but she wasn’t willing to be anything other than herself and at the time, being herself wasn’t acceptable most places. When a scout from the Ed Sullivan show asked her to appear Jackie turned them down flat. “His scout came and said: ‘You’re going to have to do this without makeup,’” she explained in an interview with The Guardian. “I said: ‘Please stuff it.’ Ed Sullivan looks like something Dr Frankenstein had a hand in. He’s going to tell me what to do?” There was also interest from large record labels such as Atlantic, but still the answer was no. “I’ve never really wanted to record,” she said. “I get my charge from performing in front of people. That’s my energy.” Here’s a paragraph about Jackie from a CBC article.

“Jackie Shane is a soul singer born in Nashville who, after moving to Canada, built a loyal audience on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip in the ’60s. Shane, a black transgender artist with a riveting, distinct voice and look, drew large crowds and even had a top 10 hit in Toronto with her song ‘Any Other Way’, which helped to shape the Toronto Sound. Today, she identifies as a transgender woman, but long before there was a vocabulary to describe who she was, she was just Jackie – one-of-a-kind, proud and powerful.”

You can hear the full CBC interview with Jackie here – https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/friday-feb-8-2019-david-foster-jackie-shane-and-more-1.5009904/the-late-jackie-shane-in-her-own-words-a-rare-interview-with-the-pioneering-musician-1.5010217

And here’s another good article – http://www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/jackie-shane/

I have great respect for Jackie. She was black, gender queer and brilliant at a time when Toronto – and the music business in general – didn’t particularly respect any of those things. If like me you don’t quite understand what ‘gender queer’ or non-binary’ mean, it’s worth checking this wiki page out for an introduction – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-binary_gender

You may also enjoy learning about Fa-afafine. Many say the future isn’t binary. A brief study of the spaces between the lines of history tells us that the past certainly wasn’t, either. 

Jackie had a strong musical pedigree, was by all accounts a fantastic drummer, and played alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Etta James. I put on her version of ‘Shotgun’ and head up Yonge St, once home to numerous bars where Jackie would have also played along with some of the great names in music at the time.

At 333 Yonge used to be Le Coq d-Or Tavern, then comes 351 Yonge which was the location of A&A Records where interest in Jackie’s career was rekindled thanks to members of the public asking for copies of her single ‘Any Other Way’. Staff had to go to Buffalo in the States to order copies and it was shortly after this increase in sales that arrangements were made to record a live album of Jackie at the Saphire Tavern. ‘Shotgun’ has finished on my headphones and now comes her version of ‘Money’, complete with her rap about walking up Yonge St…

I pass the still functioning Zanzibar and come to 372 Yonge, the site of The Blue Note. It’s now a falafel and kebab joint, with shisha lounge upstairs.

The club was popular with well-known international artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Righteous Brothers, and the Supremes, who performed impromptu late-night sets there after giving concerts at major venues elsewhere in the city. Jackie also performed here at times. Along with El Mocambo, The Blue Note is another venue where I’d have loved to have been a sound engineer!

At 423 Yonge there’s a couple of huge musical murals on the building’s ends. Jackie Shane is pictured halfway up one side.

I think she would’ve been thrilled to be featured here. She loved Toronto, as is clear from this quote from her last interview before she passed away in February, 2019.

“One cannot choose where one is born, but you can choose your home. I chose Toronto. I love Toronto. I love Canadian people. I consider myself a part of them. The Canadian people have been so good to me. At first, there were people who are ignorant and talk and talk and don’t know what they’re talking about. They were curious, but when they got to know me and we grew to love one another – I loved them first. I had to. I could not allow myself to be angry. We became real lovers. I love Toronto.”

These 2 walls of street art really are impressive. I make a note to learn more about the figures portrayed in them – they’ll likely be a window into the history of the local music scene – and Adrian Hayles, the artist who painted them. Fantastic work. 

These links tell about the artist, and more about the murals.

https://sidewalkhustle.com/adrian-hayles-the-artist-behind-the-yonge-street-murals/

https://nowtoronto.com/music/features/toronto-is-getting-a-giant-mural-dedicated-to-the-yonge-street-music-scene/

Carrying on I pass the corner where straight people would stand to throw eggs at drag queens on Halloween in the 70’s and 80’s, and 2 of the most important gay venues of the 1980’s; at 488 is the site of The St Charles Hotel, and at 530 is The Parkside Tavern. I learnt about them from the film I told you of earlier. There’s a good article about ‘Stages’, a club above the Parkside, here – http://thenandnowtoronto.com/2014/10/then-now-stages/#more-1227

Here’s an excerpt from the article.

“The Parkside’s owners allowed police to regularly spy on patrons in the washrooms, waiting to nab men engaged in any sort of sexual acts. Arrests were made, and the practice continued throughout the 1970s, even as gay activists organized leafleting campaigns and called for boycotts of the bar.

These conflicts were characteristic of the time. During the mid-to-late-1970s, Yonge Street was the main artery of Toronto gay social life (it would shift to Church in the mid-1980s)….

“Those were the days when, on Halloween, people would throw eggs and ink at drag queens,” says Arnie Kliger, the man who would open ‘Stages’. “It also wasn’t particularly safe for gays to walk around the side streets.”

Kliger had both safety and glamour in mind when he worked with partner Stephen Cohen to open after-hours gay disco ‘Stages’. Its location, above The Parkside, had housed numerous clubs since the late-’60s, among them The August Club, Mama Cooper’s, The Milkbar, Quasimodo, and Bimbo’s.”

The site of the Parkside Tavern and ‘Stages’ nightclub.

I turn into Wellesley and reach Church, a centrepoint for today’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer communities in Toronto.

Like Kensington it’s a homely place for those who enjoy an honest vibe. For me it’s also an easier place to be; there’s more space in the streets to move, and the artwork is heavy on loving acceptance and less so on revolutionary edge. Life also feels softer here, more gentle, although that’s likely just because of my pre-conceptions of the LGBTQ communities and the fact that I only come here in the middle of the day. A person well embedded on the local scene may see it through a very different lens. This short video tells of one of the art installations – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/nataliewood/

I run back to Yonge St via Isabella, which in the 70’s and 80’s was a street that Toronto police identified as a focal point for prostitution. There’s a large congregation of people living in tents along a strip of greenery there today. I’ve read that it’s safer to live in tents at the moment as the likelihood of getting Covid, or your stuff stolen, at homeless shelters is high. Shelters also have curfews which makes finding work (much of which is shift based) more difficult. The atmosphere among the people congregating around the tents is akin to a cultural festival, I can see why folks opt for this way of living in the summer if they’re having problems finding or affording an apartment.

I cross Yonge (just north of here is the Bloor/Yonge subway where police officers used to crawl into air vents above the public toilets and try to catch gays ‘in the act’) and head down tranquil backstreets towards sites associated with the 1981 bathhouse raids and subsequent protests. For those unaware of the raids, here’s a paragraph from the Daily Xtra that gives a brief intro.

“On Feb 5, 1981, more than 150 Toronto police descended on that city’s gay bathhouses, arresting more than 300 innocent men. It was part of a deliberate and organized campaign by government and police to push gay baths and bars out of business, to silence the gay press and to remove gay voices from public discourse.”

You can read much more about the bathhouse raids here – https://www.dailyxtra.com/the-1981-toronto-bathhouse-riots-34317

The first site I pass is of one of the bath houses, the ‘Romans II Health and Recreation Spa’ at 742 Bay St. There’s no sign of the spa now. Next up is the Precinct 52 police station. The officers from this station were well known for their antisocial behaviour in the 70’s and 80’s and it was here that the protests after the bathhouse raids first centred. 

Here’s a short video about the protests. The crowds were demanding police accountability to gay and other minority communities facing police harassment. Sadly, there were several members of the Toronto Secret Police identified within the parade, amping up the volume and anger in order to give the parade a bad public image – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/52-division/

Later I’ll pass the site of ‘The Barracks’ bathhouse at 56 Widmer St. where one of the most shocking incidents of the raids occured. While detaining some naked men inside a shower room there, a police officer pointed to the shower pipes and said “gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to the gas”.

Later, one Jewish man present whose parents had survived the Nazi holocaust said the whole police operation had helped him understand his parents’ experiences back in a concentration camp on an emotional level, whereas before he’d understood it only intellectually. The Blitzkrieg style of police operation – swift, noisy, violent, malicious – the gratuitous violence he saw as police officers smashed up the spa buildings for no reason, the way the police made men strip naked and stand in the showers, it was clear that some cops were very mentally troubled at the time. “I’m just doing my job,” said one cop to the Jewish man in question. How many times did the Jews in Europe hear Nazi’s saying that, I wonder?

No wonder the gay community protested after these raids. 

Leaving Precinct 52 I run to Grange Park, where the first Pride Parade began on 28th June 1981, the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Protests in New York. There’d been months of protests associated with the Bathhouse Raids and some members of the gay community began to think that they wanted to celebrate and be proud of their community rather than just protest injustices perpetrated against it. That’s how the Toronto Pride parade came into being. The crowds congregated in the park then marched up Yonge St, you can see a nice video of this parade here https://www.queerstory.ca/project/pride-picnic-1981/

Next I pass 24 Duncan St, once home of the influential newspaper ‘The Body Politic’. This was a monthly magazine published from 1971 to 1987 that was one of Canada’s first significant gay publications, playing a prominent role in the development of the LGBTQ community in Canada.

See a short video of the Body Politic and its role in the protests here – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/the-body-politic-1981/

Nearby is Widmer St; the site of ‘The Barracks’ bathhouse is now given over to construction.

I read a few paragraphs about the raids from the Canadian Encyclopedia. “Bathhouse patrons were subjected to excessive behaviour by police, including verbal taunts about their sexuality. When the night was over, 286 men were charged for being found in a common bawdy house (a brothel), while 20 were charged for operating a bawdy house. It was, up to that time, the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history. Most of those arrested were found innocent of the charges. The raids marked a turning point for Toronto’s gay community, as the protests that followed indicated they would no longer endure derogatory treatment from the police, media and the public.”

Read the full encyclopedia entry here – https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-feature-bathhouse-raids

To get an idea of the atmosphere within which the police acted on the night of the raid here’s an editorial from the March 1979 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Association (MTPA) newsletter ‘News & Views’, written by Staff Sergeant Tom Moclair, a 22-year veteran of 14 Division.

“I was saddened and desolated that the Mayor of Toronto recently sanctioned acts of perversion which symptomize the decadence of our society in his liberal and flippant show of appreciation to a few hundred homosexuals who helped him get elected. These “weirdos” may need our tolerance and acceptance, but certainly not our approval to continue their psychological sickness in foisting their acts of depravity on the long-suffering public.

Segments of our society suffering from homosexuality which calls itself “homophile,” “gays,” “fags,” and “fruits,” etc., provide us with a vivid example of how far we in Canada have gone down the “road to debauchery.” Just look at them; victims of emotional sickness, misfits of their environments, attempting to turn their aberration into a right, as well as a virtue.

Just listen to them talk (if you can stomach them); and they sure like to talk, because talk is a penchant of homosexuality especially in the physically deprived and cowardly male. If you were ignorant of what they are and what they represent, you would think that their type of deviance was a valuable asset. But let us remember that homosexuality is nothing new. Many cultures throughout history have dealt with them almost universally with disdain, disgust, abhorrence, and even death.”

It was probably considered normal to hold these views in straight white society back then – I certainly remember similar views being expressed by adults around me when I was a kid in the 70’s – so I’m not singling the guy out but still, it’s quite unbelievable that a Staff Sergeant in the Toronto Police Force would think it was ok to write this. He must have been so sure of his immunity, that as a police officer he could do as he wished. Much the same as the 4 police officers who murdered George Floyd on camera must have felt. More on this story here – https://torontoist.com/2016/06/historicist-all-the-news-views-that-arent-fit-to-print/

I’m on my way home now along Graffiti Alley, where I see there’s been a large amount of powerful new work done. We absolutely need more than street art and a few changes of places and products named after slavers or racist concepts but it’s good to see the creatives doing what they can here…

…and then past The Beaver Cafe, which is closed at the moment. I’m unsure if this is just because of Covid or not. A paragraph from the cafe website – 

“The Beaver Café is a queer and alt-culture oasis located in the heart of Queen West. Established in 2006 by Lynn McNeill and his then business partner Will Munro, The Beaver was ahead of the wave that has transformed the neighbourhood into a hub of dining and nightlife.” There’s a nice article written from a personal perspective about Will Munro and The Beaver here – https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/vvnyyb/will-munro-the-beaver-toronto-lgbtq-collage-series

If the cafe opens again after the pandemic I’m going to visit. I like the history, it’s statement of tolerance and encouagement of creativity, and the prices on the menu look fair, too. 

Half an hour later I’m home, decompressing. It’s been a hot half marathon run, certainly, but there’s also been a lot of thoughts that need to be filtered and acted upon, as well as songs and artwork to be enjoyed and appreciated. 

My 13.1 mile route.

I started out with Jackie Shane as my guide and I’m still eager to explore all her music but learning about Will Munro has been an act of unearthing unexpected treasure. My own five years in Toronto have seemed largely devoid of depth when it comes to art. The art openings and galleries I’ve visited, and the modern work I’ve seen, have mostly been corporate, bloodless affairs created, it appeared, by those who wished to have dialogue with the bank manager rather than the subject of art itself. But Will, and his legacy of living bravely, actually being interested in art more than money, and clearly referencing idols that gel with me (such as Klaus Nomi, an artist I’ve been introduced to via Will – see his collaboration with David Bowie here), have stirred strong feelings of creating in a free, accepting, honest and inclusive way; something I haven’t done 100% for many years.

Perhaps a key to finding your own voice is taking a step to the side and looking at the landscape from a different perspective. It’s a tricky business but we can be thankful that there is help on hand, from the examples that Jackie Shane, Will Munro and so many others from the LGBTQ community have set for us all. 

I found this collection of letters to Will inspiring. https://www.cbc.ca/arts/dear-will-munro-love-letters-to-a-beloved-artist-and-community-builder-10-years-after-his-passing-1.5577223

And, by way of goodbye for now, here’s one more from Jackie.



Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Fri, April 10, 2020 03:57PM

Hacienda Baru is a couple of kms up the coast from Dominical, a small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, about a 4 hour drive from the San Jose airport. We visited whilst staying in Dominical, in 2019 and again in 2020. The hacienda website can be seen here – https://www.haciendabaru.com/

There are a few ways of getting to Hacienda Baru. If you’re driving, it’s just 2km north of Dominical on the main road to the car park in front of the Hacienda’s ticket office. There are also taxis available from town but you have to book in advance. Ask your hotel about that. Buses are also an option. You can walk on the main road, if you go early there’s not so much traffic.

For this visit, because we’d been to the Hacienda several times and walked back to Dominical via the beach and were pretty confident of the way, we decided to walk there via the beach. We wouldn’t advise this for first time visitors though as there are no signposts from the beach to the Hacienda, and there’s little chance of you knowing where to leave the beach if you don’t already have a good idea where the track to the ticket office begins.

We checked the tides and, seeing that it was low at about 8am, we set off just before that to wade the River Baru, which cuts through the beach just north of Dominical. If it’d been high tide or if it’d rained hard the night before we probably would have taken a taxi instead. But the weather had been fair the night before and it seemed calm now so off we went. It was only about calf deep but it was a very strong current and the rocks underfoot were sharp. If you’re going to do this wear water sandals!

Wading the River Baru

From the north bank of the River Baru we then had a beautiful 2km walk along a completely empty beach. For nature lovers, this is a dream approach to one of the very best wildlife viewing areas in the world.

It was just us 2 on the beach. I dropped behind to take this photo of N walking ahead.

Once at the turn off point we walked up the dirt road to the Hacienda Baru office, got our day passes and then started to walk the lowland trails. We’ve done this before with a guide and recommend signing up for a tour. On this occasion, however, we were in the mood for just being in nature. We had no list of animals we wanted to see, we were going to be happy with whatever crossed out path. We were actually just as interested in seeing the trees as we’d been studying them at home for a few months and were excited to learn more about them as we walked around. We had a couple of books to help us and also we knew there were frequent information boards along the trails that tell you fascinating facts about certain trees, as well as the animals. The first animals we came across were a troupe of white faced monkeys. We’d decided to leave the big cameras at home for this trip and so what you see here is a faithful representation of what you might see yourself if you visit with just a compact camera and a phone.

Socks pulled up as protection against biting insects! I prefer not to wear insect repellent if I can get away with it and in this case there weren’t many insects, and they were only there early and late in the day, so socks pulled up and long sleeved shirt was enough protection.

The next animal we came across was a sloth, it was an excellent sighting. Sometimes you have to look really hard to find them but this one was only about 10 metres off the ground, unsheltered by any foliage, and pretty much unmissable!

There were agouti scampering through the undergrowth. We heard them gnawing on food often, and occasionally they’d scamper across the pathway.

We heard an incredible back and forth bird call conversation as we approached the upland region of the Hacienda. We had binoculars and through them we could see a pair of toucan, far away. We were excited. Later in this trip we were to see plenty of toucan but this was our first sighting ever. They were too far away for a photo, but we stood there for half hour listening to their call. Then we carried on to the viewpoint, where we planned to have a rest and a snack for lunch.

The hike to the viewpoint and upper walking loop.
The viewpoint panorama. The sandy estuary of the River Baru can be seen.

We sat in the shade for an hour or so, enjoying a cool breeze, then walked the upper loop. This was excellent for bird and tree spotting. Then just after 2pm as the heat began to ease off we descended and headed to another forest loop that we hadn’t done before. En route we passed this anole…

…and these mushrooms on top of a huge ants nest….

…before meeting up with another agouti.

We also saw many birds. With our binoculars and the birding pamphlet that we bought from the Hacienda shop we identified a fair few, but we didn’t forget just to be present and enjoy the moment as well. Knowing what something is called is fine, it puts your education to good use and it certainly helps if you’re trying to talk about your experience to others. But it’s also very important for me to experience the moment for what it is, and to see also what it has the possibility to be. The agouti doesn’t know it’s called an agouti, or that it’s part of this genus or that order or family, and it’s good to meet it in that space of being unknowing, but also aware of what’s happening right there at that moment. The moment always has a subtle sort of contentment in it for me. Not perhaps the big emotion that comes with hearing a lion roaring next to your tent or seeing a scarlet macaw explode from the tree above your head, but equal to those things in it’s own way and perhaps even a touch further on the path back towards a more natural interaction. I know, that’s me talking about some golden age that probably never existed. But, it might have done, and if it might have done once it might do once again, if we will it into being, right?

With this in mind I was also trying not to take as many photos as I used to. My normal way of being is to raise the camera each time I see anything at all of interest. On this trip though I tried to experience the sight first, and only when I’d enjoyed that initial looking and experiencing did I start taking photos. I was glad of this change, it seemed a fuller trip because of it.

The last great sight of the day was crossing the River Baru again, this time via the road bridge as the sun dipped into the Pacific.

What a sunset!
The view from outside Cafe Mono Congo.

We headed back for a well earned meal and an early night. We were excited to be going back to Hacienda Baru the next day. I’ll share news of that in due course, for now, if you’d like to learn more about the Hacienda, the website can be seen here – https://www.haciendabaru.com/



Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Tours & Experiences Posted on Mon, March 30, 2020 04:40PM

To view the official Rescate website – https://www.rescateanimalzooave.org/

The Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center can be visited easily on public transport from the Costa Rican cities of San Jose and Alajuela, and is just a 15 minute drive from San Jose International Airport. If you’d like to volunteer there it’s possible, there is a page on the website with all details.

Note; at the time of my visit the name of the centre was Rescate Animal Zoo Ave. I mention this because the reason for the change is an interesting one, and is explained within the article.

I enjoy visiting animal rescues when I travel, supporting them anyway I can. After any visit I always end the day satisfied, knowing that I’ve done something really worthwhile with my time. So having heard of Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center through a couple of friends I considered traveling back from my holiday on the Costa Rican Pacific coast a couple of nights before my flight home so I could check the place out. My only hesitation in making the decision to visit was due to the name of the place. Zooave? I’ve been to Zoo’s in many countries before and it’s almost always a horrific, sad experience. But I read a couple of articles online about Rescate and it seemed very far from a common zoo, and more like a very good example of an animal rescue centre, albeit with an odd name. So I got in touch, asked if I could visit with a view to writing an article about the place, and here we are. 

A staff member had arranged to meet me at the onsite restaurant and guide me around. I joined them at a table that seemed to be made out of an antique bird cage.

“I like the tables, I think,” I said, “what’s the story?”

“We have a yearly cage-crushing ceremony,” my guide explained, “the public is invited to bring bird cages to us, in fact, all cages that pets are kept in. We crush them all out there in the carpark during a party to which all local people are invited, and then we use the metal in community projects. These cages you see here we kept for use in the restaurant. I think they make a strong point, and also act as some sort of reminder, witnesses maybe, to the lives of the birds that spent time caged in them.”

I agreed, and the strong, unfiltered style of messaging appealed to me. In North America where I live, and in my native England, those working in animal care rarely state opinions as strongly as this in public. There are many reasons why this is so. Some believe in always meeting clearly irrational, selfish or childish thoughts halfway in an effort to appear fair minded. Others burrow angles around their own concept of truth because they want to be liked, funded, employed, or to gain personal advantage in other ways. And others just don’t believe that the public is educated enough to respond well to any sort of message that doesn’t promise economic advances and the satisfaction of the ego. Could I imagine any representative of a business that relies on donations, entry fees, and fundraising in my home countries having the clarity of self and confidence in the inherent goodness of their fellow humans to say in public,

“You absolutely shouldn’t cage birds. So bring us your cages, we’ll crush them, have a ceremony and a party, and then we’ll carry on with life in a more informed, mature, kinder way.”

I can’t imagine it, yet, but hopefully it will happen and eventually become the regular way of operating. I’m certainly glad that society here is more openly and genuinely empathetic than that where I come from though, so that humans somewhere are still encouraged to speak of and discuss moral truth as a main, actionable issue, rather than something that might be achieved after economics and shallow matters of the self are dealt with.

I believe that few people think it’s morally right to keep birds caged. They might like to do it (and in a few cases, such as pigeon fanciers, they may have a strong point regarding the matter) but I don’t believe anybody actually thinks it’s preferable to a bird being free. This contradiction highlights an age old battle that religions and philosophies often try to deal with, the battle between the deeper self and the more surface-based ego. Shall we act in a considered manner, or shall we get sucked in by the baubles. In a way, the pet trade offers us a debating ground on which we might improve ourselves. The more beautiful the bird, the stronger the urge is for some of us to keep it caged, and I can certainly identify with this urge. But the years have shown me that if you free the bird, by not engaging in keeping pets or supporting the pet trade in the first place, then you go some way to freeing yourself from the selfish whims of your ego.

As we walked towards the first of the animal enclosures my next question was, why is this place called ‘Zooave’? Isn’t that sort of name guaranteed to put a lot of tourists off? 

“It’s a good point, we’ve struggled with deciding what to do about this in the past,” my guide said. “It’s our original name, from the 1960’s, and it’s what local people know us by. This place was in fact a regular zoo in those days. We changed to being a rescue centre in the 1990’s but we kept the old name. ‘Going to the zoo’ is something that local people understand culturally, and we weren’t sure how people would respond if the idea changed from ‘let’s go to the zoo’ to ‘let’s go to the animal rescue centre’. And since 85% of our business comes from locals, we had to consider this. But we’ve decided to change the name now to better reflect what we do, and our new name is Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center. We are hoping to have the new website and re-branding ready by the spring of 2020.”

“It must be tricky to decide on the wording of a name,” I said, “I know there are various activities you can and can’t do here in Costa Rica regarding wildlife, according to how you describe yourself legally.”

What I was referring to was the Wildlife Conservation Law of 2013 that defined the difference between zoos and animal rescue centres in Costa Rica. Zoos can be nonprofit or for-profit and are allowed to publicly display animals that cannot be released, and to conduct environmental education programs. Animal rescue centers must only be nonprofit, must rehabilitate and release animals, and must be closed to the public.

“Yes, it has been, and we have 2 parts to our operation, so Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center is legally registered as a wildlife rescue center and a sanctuary. The area that is open to the public is the ‘sanctuary’ – the actual term in the wildlife regulations that accompany the law is ‘zoo type sanctuary’ – and it houses over 800 non-releasable animals. Sanctuaries are allowed to be open to the public. The rescue center itself – the part we will soon visit,  behind the scenes, which takes up the majority area of our centre – is closed to the public.”

To expand on the lawful definitions briefly, in Costa Rica a zoo is a managed site where wildlife is kept in captivity, whether or not for commercial purposes, under the direction of a corps of professionals that ensures adequate living conditions in an attractive and didactic manner for the public. Its main objectives are the scientific conservation, education, research and display of wild fauna.

And a rescue center is a managed site which aims to rehabilitate wildlife that has been rescued, seized or surrendered voluntarily for the purpose of their recovery and reintegration into their natural environment whenever possible. The sites are non-profit and closed to the public.

There are well over 200 animal rescue centres in Costa Rica and almost every one of them is open to the public, which on the surface of it sounds like an incredibly widespread flouting of the law. Not all of them are just using the animals to make money though, and an expert I know suggested that perhaps 7 or 8 are really trying to do the right thing by the animals. And you have to have some sympathy for many of the others.

Imagine, you find a baby sloth on the ground. It has a deformity that means it can’t cling to a tree. It fell from it’s mother earlier that day, the mother has moved away and won’t come back (this is common behavior among sloth mothers, they want to be free of their babies quickly), and now it’s at the mercy of predators on the ground. This is a relatively common occurrence in areas were pesticides are heavily used on fruit plantations. Costa Rica is the number 1 user of pesticides of any country in the world, and local wildlife is heavily affected by this (as are local people who work on the plantations). So you find this baby sloth, there is nobody around who knows how to take care of it. You decide to try your best to help, and the sloth survives. Local villagers hear of your success and then, when they next find an animal in distress, they bring it to you to care for it. And so an animal rescue centre is born. But you need money to keep it going so you charge people to come take a look at what you’re doing. Only, this isn’t legal, you’re expected to foot the bill yourself somehow. So you apply for funding here and there but you’re not a professional fundraiser and don’t know the terminology that those folks demand you speak, and anyway, the time spent on fundraising is time you’re not taking care of the animals and your own family. You could get a professional fundraiser but you can’t afford to pay them, and a foreign intern might help open up a revenue source, but how do you get a reliable one? You can see, being kind to animals comes with a host of issues if you’re not super rich.

“There are so many wildlife recuse centres in Costa Rica now, it’s difficult for tourists to know what to support and what not to support,” I asked my guide. “Have you any tips to help us choose?”

“Looking at the photos on the website, or in the brochure or promotional material, can give you an indication. If they suggest that you can cuddle the animals, get very close to them, or even have selfies taken with them, usually sloths, birds or monkeys, then it’s not the sort of place you should be supporting.”

We passed an installation that emphasised the problem with animal selfies. There was a toy sloth hanging and a sign saying ‘This sloth love selfies, a real one does not’. #stopanimalselfies

“This is our initiative, and we’ve put installations like this at the airport, and other places that tourists frequent,” my guide explained. “Animals get stressed out if they’re hung around humans necks or put on their shoulders, and there’s also the possibility of passing on diseases, from human to animal, and from animal to human. Many animals are also captured as babies purely to be put on show at some places that call themselves animal rescues but which are really just restaurants or gift shops with a sideshow, and to capture a baby animal means that the mothers are often beaten to death, or shot. We want to spread this ‘no selfie’ message, so people know what they are supporting if they choose to get a photo taken with an animal at one of these centres.” 

We’d arrived at the first enclosure. A large crocodile had its mouth wide open on the other side of a pond. When she heard us talking she closed her mouth and turned towards us.

“She was taken from people who were keeping her illegally,” my guide explained, “But we can’t release her into the wild, she likes humans a lot. I think that her owners treated her well, or maybe fed her by hand, because now whenever she hears human voices she moves towards the sound. Can you imagine what would happen if we set her free? She might hear people playing in the river, or washing clothes, and move towards them, they wouldn’t know she was friendly, they’d probably throw rocks at her, or shoot her. It’s just not safe for her to be set free. It’s better she stays here, has a quiet life. Here she can act as an education tool, our guides tell guests about her. Often people don’t understand why we can’t allow animals to be released, or the importance of keeping distance between humans and wild animals. It can be complicated at times. Her story helps people to understand the importance of not keeping wild animals as pets.”

In the next enclosure were 2 caimans. They had running water, a pond, and some space to move away from humans if they wanted to.

“These were rescued from a dealer,” my guide explained, “they were bred to provide leather, and meat. Here we have a similar issue to the crocodile next door, they don’t know to fear humans.” 

Later I was to learn how many animals can be rehabilitated yet here I could see that with crocodiles, or any animal that is both a potentially fierce predator and one that humans are naturally fearful of, then rehabilitation would be terribly hard if not impossible. How do you teach a crocodile not to trust humans and not to come too close? You could find a place where humans don’t go and place them there, but crocodiles travel, and even if they didn’t how many places are there these days where people don’t live? There may be better answers than keeping the animals here but whilst the hunt it on for them, this sort of enclosure is a good holding point.

Next came the turtles. 

“There was a craze for importing turtles into Costa Rica from the USA, it’s illegal to import them now but still we find them being released by their owners and altering the local water habitats.” My guide was talking about the Red Eared Slider Turtle. It’s been the most popular turtle in the pet trade with more than 52 million individuals exported from the United States to foreign markets between 1989 and 1997. Little is known of their impact on native ecosystems although their omnivorous diet and ability to adapt to various habitats gives them great potential for impacting indigenous habitats. The species has been nominated as among 100 of the ‘World’s Worst’ invaders, to learn more about this species, check here – https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/61560

The turtles illustrated another problem; they’re healthy but release into the wild here isn’t an option as they shouldn’t be here and are potentially harmful for indigenous wildlife, and people. Short of shipping them back to the States, and there are hundreds of thousands of them needing to go, what else can be done but keep them in enclosures like this?

The main lesson here is to boycott the exotic pet trade. And to do our best to get those who indulge in it to upgrade their views and stop.

The raptor enclosures came next. They were tall cages, for a reason.

“The birds get unsettled if they’re at eye level with humans, they need to be up high to cut down on stress levels,” my guide explained. “It’s difficult to see them at times and that can be a problem with our paying guests. Often people come here expecting a close experience with the animals yet for the animals own well-being this only happens if the animals want it to. They always need space where they can get away from being with people if they wish. You’ll notice in all our enclosures the animals have space to be on their own, away from humans. Sometimes our visitors complain, sometimes they can’t see an animal closely, or at all, but this is how it has to be. We’ve tried to address these concerns of our guests in another way, you’ll see how later when you visit the farm animals. There we’ve made it so that kids, well, anyone really, can get close to animals that don’t mind the contact, like horses, donkeys and pigs.”

“Can these birds ever be released?” I asked.

“These ones, no, we will see others later that are on the way to being. But these birds of prey, no. They’ve suffered various injuries that prevent it. For instance, this one here had a broken wing. We’ve fixed it but it’ll never be what it was. Imagine, it’s hunting, it’s chasing a rat, it has to swoop this way and that very quickly. But with a faulty wing it can’t do that. It simply won’t be able to hunt, it won’t be able to eat. It’ll starve.”

Walking past a spacey enclosure a black animal appeared that looked like a mix between an English badger and a stoat, except it had webbed feet. The signage said it was a Greater Grison, and that little was known of the species. I’d certainly not heard of it during my 4 nature viewing trips to Costa Rica.

My guide opened a gate and invited me through.

“The public isn’t allowed in here. This is our rehabilitation centre. Seeing it will help explain something of what we do, and why.”

To the right of a corridor were windows. We could look through them into enclosures and intensive care units but there was a coating on the other side of them that meant the animals inside couldn’t see us.

Looking back from an enclosure, seeing the animals view of the corridor windows.

“We don’t want the wild animals getting used to seeing or being around humans, or being stressed by our presence. The public can’t come here but still, there are volunteers, vets, and workers who sometimes pass. These window coatings are just one of the methods we use to minimize contact.

You can also see here, in this unit, that on either side are smaller cages that can be moved between the shelter and the outdoors via a mechanism operated remotely. It means that when birds need to transition slowly from rehab to the outside world, they can be in these cages and be moved between indoors and outdoors for a few hours each day whilst they get used to being outside again, without seeing people.”

There were several other intensive care units we could see into, each looked like a mini hospital. Why were there so many, I asked? I haven’t seen this at other rescue centres I’d visited, they usually only have one.

“We need to keep the species apart. If you keep an injured baby monkey in the same room as an injured baby ocelot, several disastrous things will probably occur. The monkey may start to think of the ocelot as friendly, so when they are released they don’t run from ocelots when they should. The ocelot can start to think of the monkey or other animals as friendly and then won’t hunt them when it is released, and then it’ll starve…”

“You mean the ocelot will not hunt at all? It won’t just hunt something other than what it usually does? Or eat fruit, or something like that?”

“No,” my guide said, “it’s been studied. When an ocelot loses that ability to see the monkey or other small animals as prey it won’t change it’s diet, it’ll starve. So it’s essential we keep predators and prey apart. This unit is for monkeys, that’s for cats, that one is for birds, and this one on the end is a medical unit, you can see a sloth being hand fed by one of our nurses at the moment.”

“Won’t this hand feeding, this close contact with a human, affect the sloth when it’s released?”

“No, the sloth is different from other animals,” my guide smiled, “it’s naturally a solitary creature and it retains that quality no matter what happens to it. Studies show that once you release them they’re gone without looking back. They like to keep their space from all others, animals or human.”

Beyond the units was a circular enclosure and 2 more bird enclosures, all out of view of the public. They were used to house animals at various stages of their rehabilitation. On the other side of the corridor were yet more areas. 

“There are various stages birds go through between arriving here and being released, according to their species,” my guide explained. “For instance, a bird that’s usually part of a flock, if they’re taken from a flock and kept as a pet or even if they’re bred in captivity, they’ll have to show us that they’re ready to rejoin a flock in order to be released. It’s kind of like they have to graduate from ‘bird school’. They have to show that they can be part of a flock so they can survive in the wild. So when we first get them we keep them in quarantine for a time, up to 2 months, to check they’re free of disease that could harm other birds. Once that’s over we put them in with others of their kind. If they show that they can be part of the flock then they graduate to the next stage but if not, they stay behind and join the next group that’s coming through. Some birds take 2 or 3 classes to join the flock, but all eventually do.”

“And what’s the next stage, after they join the flock?”

“We have various styles of release, but it could look like this. We take them to a remote, safe, forested area and keep them in a large enclosure. We release one or two at a time, usually the least confident birds go first. Imagine, if we released the confident birds at first they’d fly off into the jungle and leave the others. So we release the least confident first. They hang around the cage even though they’re free, and the bonds between all birds continue to grow. There’s food available inside and outside of the enclosure so they can eat if they’re nervous about flying off into the forest to get food…”

“Why would they do that? If food was easily available at the cage, why move away?”

“Because the food we provide them is adequate, but it’s not as tasty as that which they can get naturally in the forest!” 

It was just one more thing that made perfect sense but which I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. One of the most important lessons of the day for me was not to have any more uninformed reaction to situations I didn’t know much about. It’s common for animal lovers to want all animals to be free, now, and to believe that anybody who keeps animals in cages is wrong. Our passion guides us, and blinds us. But this is unwise. Our passion should guide our reason. If we’re actually interested in animal welfare as much as we say we are then we must take our time to study the science, and best current methods of care, and get our information from peer reviewed journals and experienced people working in the field rather than social media outrage. I shall certainly try to adjust my own actions regarding this in the future.

“So once the less confident birds have got used to being outside we let one or two more out. If birds have paired off, we only let one of them out. Same reasoning as with the more confident birds, if we let a pair out they may just fly off on their own together. This process may take months. The last birds to be released are the most confident and by then, the other birds are nicely formed into a flock – which is how they act naturally, it protects them in many ways – and they’ve also had time to learn where the natural food sources are in the local area so eventually they just fly off on their own. And with a few changes, we follow a similar course with other animals. They get released but we provide an adequate, if not super tasty, food source for them whilst they get used to finding their way in the new surroundings. For some animals it can take years to safely reintegrate.”

We left the rescue centre and re-entered the pubic zone. We passed an enclosure where a one armed monkey was climbing a tree (“he copes very well. Obviously can’t go free, he would struggle fending for himself, but he seems happy here,”) and stopped beside a toucan.

“This is Grecia, you may have heard of her,” my guide said. I had. Grecia’s case had become famous worldwide a few years ago. Tortured and beaten by a gang of local youths who’d hacked her beak off, she’d been near death when she’d arrived at the centre. The vets held out little hope for her yet as they discussed putting her to sleep she’d started to try to sing. They’d seen this as a sign that she had the will to live, so she was helped to recover from the shock and the injury, and after a fund raising drive a prosthetic 3D printed beak was created for her. 

Opposite her enclosure was a human size statue of her, as she looked with her beak hacked off. The message was powerful and honest. This is what some of us humans did to her. And now look, look how innocent she is, how she hops about on her branch so simply, hurting nobody. How cruel we are to treat animals as we do. Not just in this case, but in the packed cages of the animal agriculture farms, in the zoos, and sometimes in our homes. How much better we must be to be worthy of ourselves and nature! 

Here are a couple of links to learn more about Grecia https://ticotimes.net/2016/08/11/grecia-toucan-new-cage

https://www.goprint3d.co.uk/blog/the-remarkable-story-of-grecia-the-costa-rican-toucan/

Grecia using her new beak to preen her feathers.

My guide left me here, I wandered for the next few hours around the grounds. There was a zip line that offered another look at the centre so I signed up for that. We started above the white faced monkey enclosure, a huge area where the monkeys could be seen, but far away.

Here’s a view from the first zip line platform. 

Zip-line guides went before and after me as I whirred down the wire to the second platform. We were a respectful distance from the animals, I didn’t see any of them look up or act disturbed. To my right were the white faced monkeys, then down below was a bird enclosure. A toucan on the inside and a toucan on the outside were talking to each other. Overhead circled several vultures. Then we were gliding over the sloths. It’s tricky to see sloths at the best of times in the wild and here it was the same. They don’t move much so what you generally see is a bundle of fur and perhaps some claws. Still, it was interesting to see them from above and as with the other animals, they showed no sign of being bothered by our presence. On we went, over peacock, monkey, ostrich, giant tortoise and more, and then I was back out into the rescue centre exploring on foot.

Many animals were out of sight, it was 2pm and rather hot. Perhaps they were sheltering in the cool, or maybe they’d had enough of humans at the moment and had gone to their quiet places. Now I’d learned how they need their own space to feel safe I wasn’t annoyed at this. Rather, I was pleased that they had the option to chill out alone. I like to take photos of animals as much as anybody but Rescate helped me think about priorities, and other things, thanks to educational signs like these that lined the walkways between enclosures.

There is a local belief that sea turtle eggs help with male virility. It’s nonsense, but it’s ingrained. This sign basically says ‘my eggs are not the solution, if you need help use viagra instead.’ Great education. 

And this next sign was another level entirely. I love it when illustrators working on public art don’t feel compelled to speak down to the public and instead assume a level of knowledge and self reflection that allows them to offer complex, thought provoking messages such as this.

I understood the Spanish, I recognized the style of painting as that of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist famous for his fruit-faced portraits – and I saw how the wooden elements of our everyday furniture were replaced with bones. I think it was saying, the way we construct our lives is destroying us. We sit and admire nature on the walls in paintings, we are nature ourselves, yet we kill it, and therefore ourselves. Can we do better than this!?

Maybe it was saying that. I’m unsure. It was good art, in any case, offering plenty of stimulus for thought.

The spider monkeys were active. One stalked me as I walked past. It kept it’s eyes locked on mine and followed me as I walked first one way for 15 metres, then back, then back again. I’ve had a lot of experience in the wilds of Africa with animals I’ve encountered whilst on foot and I’m not usually spooked but the intensity of this monkey’s stare, and the controlled, electric ripple of it’s movements made me glad there was a barrier between us. It was clearly very powerful, without fear, and was sizing me up clinically with every movement. There was a deep growl, too. I recalled that my guide had said that male spider monkeys kept as pets were a huge problem, as they’re powerful enough to attack a human if they see food, and small groups of them have been known to kill people. In fact, the government has to send hunters out on occasion to track down spider monkeys in the wild that are way too used to humans. Some just become that way by chance, perhaps they encounter villagers daily, but others have been kept as pets and then released once they got too big or aggressive. These few monkeys in the enclosure were kept there for their own good, and for ours. 

This shows about a third of the spacious spider monkey enclosure.

I called in at the onsite restaurant – named ‘Kivu’ after the lion that had lived out the last of it’s days here in a large, private enclosure after having been kept in squalid conditions at the San Jose zoo – and ate from the excellent buffet. There was plenty of local favorites like rice and beans, plantains, sauces that were new to me made with mango, berries and other fruits, many types of salads, and soups. 

My final hour was spent in the bird section of the park. Here the larger and more colourful birds were settled. Many had their wings clipped, courtesy of their previous owners no doubt, but at least they now had their own perches in a pleasant setting and could move around as freely as was possible. 

Some had been bred especially for the pet trade and were beautifully, yet unnaturally, coloured. Being with the Scarlet Macaws was a bittersweet experience. I was obviously pleased to be close to them yet sad that they have to be here. I’d just spent a week in the Osa Peninsula and Carara National Park, the 2 places in Costa Rica where you can still find these birds regularly now. Seeing a flash of red overhead was always thrilling, and luckily I’d experienced it daily. I didn’t need them to be close for me to enjoy them, just to be in the same part of the world as them and catch a glimpse was enough. So to see them here was beautiful yet awful. They should be flying wild, not kept by us in any way. They used to be common all over the country but now there’s less than 2,000 in Osa and less than 500 in Carara. The good news is that Rescate has had tremendous success in breeding these birds and has a well established program to release captive bred birds in areas where they’re currently extinct. 

Having made 4 visits to Costa Rica and toured a dozen or so of the wildlife focused national parks, rescue centres and volunteer projects I’d say that Rescate is a must see for nature lovers. It’s accessible – all the paths are well paved – and also very easy to visit as it’s on a bus route. Please consider putting aside time at the start or end of your holiday to visit, and support, the centre. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your day and you might well learn a lot about the complex world of animal rescue and rehabilitation, as I did. 

To Visit

To view the official Rescate website – https://www.rescateanimalzooave.org/

There’s a large car park if you’re driving. There’s also a local bus, it’s the number 246 from Alajuela and you can find the schedule here (it’s basically every hour) https://moovitapp.com/index/en/public_transit-line-ALAJUELA_ATENAS-San_Jose-2967-858091-778447-0

I stayed at Hostel Cala in Alajuela, I booked it through booking.com It was good value and the staff helped me locate the bus station, which was a 10 minute walk from the hostel. 



Rio Claro Aventuras Eco Tours, Corcovado, Costa Rica

Canoeing & Swimming, Tours & Experiences Posted on Fri, February 07, 2020 10:19AM

Rio Claro Aventuras Eco Tours was set up to help fund the Life For Life Sea Turtle Rescue Centre (check them out here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/ ) that operates at the mouth of the Rio Claro, between Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. This small area is home to an astonishing 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity; we only stayed for 5 days but that time was enough to tell us that this place is very special indeed. If you’ve an interest in nature and have the opportunity, please try to visit!

Life For Life also has a hostel situated on an idyllic beach near to the Rio Claro, we’ll talk about that later on, for now if you want to skip straight to it check it out here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/accomodations/rooms/

We were staying in the village of Aguitas in Drake Bay and to get to the Rio Claro estuary from there you have several options, with the top 2 being either a water taxi, or walking along the coastal path. We decided to walk as we were told it was a beautiful path, and indeed it was. It’s not paved but it’s easy to follow and it takes about 3 easy hours to reach the estuary from the village. Here are some views of the path and scenery, we were to walk it every day of our 5 days in the area, it was ideal for bird watching and enjoying the rainforest.

Rio Claro wasn’t listed on the sign above, but you’ll come to it just before San Josecito. This sign was just over half hour along the track from the village. As you can see the path is well trodden and fascinating.

The final photo shows the only section of the path that was muddy. We were there in January, which is dry season, so expect to get a little dirty at this 100 metre section if you pass in the wet season, from about May to November. Apart from this though, it was easy going. When you get to the Rio Claro you are greeted with a fine sight, the river easing round the bend from the rainforest on your left to the Pacific Ocean on your right.

If the tide is low you can wade straight across, the water will be up to your waist, and if it’s high tide then carry on walking along the track to the left of the river until you come to this sign.

Blow the whistle and somebody will canoe across the river to pick you up. The Sea Turtle Rescue Centre, and the base for the Rio Claro Aventuras Tours, is on the other bank. Here we met Ricardo, the guy responsible for setting up the operation 20 years ago. Before the tour we spent a short while looking around the centre.

There were many hand made gifts to buy (all profits go towards funding the centre)…

…and opportunities to learn about the work that the centre does. A noticeboard told of the egg hatchery success rate, they have remarkably high numbers and Ricardo said that was partly because the climate there was perfect for the turtles. The temperature of the water coming down the river and that of the ocean make the sands between them the ideal breeding ground. A few of the numbers were listed on the board, Ricardo said they had to update the board with much more good news as nests had hatched recently and all the babies had made it to the ocean.

“We’ve released over 6 million baby turtles since we started here, thanks to our volunteers who come from all countries.” he explained, “We need more help though, so please mention to your friends that if they want to volunteer here, they’re welcome!”

Previous volunteers had collected rubbish from the beach and some was hung around to illustrate to all who passed through here that nothing ever really disappears after we throw it away. We trust that our garbage will be dealt with without harming the earth, but the more I travel the more I see that this isn’t happening as much as we hope it is. Hanging up were beach shoes, mobile phones, cameras and fishing gear. The fishing gear was stamped ‘Made in Taiwan’, it made horrible sense, the Taiwanese fishing fleets are the main culprits in Costa Rican waters in the slaughter of sharks and the other large sea animals that get caught on their long lines and in their nets, such as dolphins, tuna and sea turtles.

Having got changed into clothes we didn’t mind getting wet, and choosing a pair of river shoes and a life jacket, we set off on our adventure.

“It starts right here, if you want,” said Ricardo. “You can jump off that rock there, into the Rio Claro! Don’t worry, it’s very deep at this point, you’ll be safe.” It looked high above the river but I trusted him and went for it. I dropped through the air for what seemed like a minute then Splash! Down, down, boy, the river really is deep at this point, and then I was up above the surface thinking how refreshing the river was. I’d been pretty warm up there on land but now everything felt perfect.

We began paddling upstream. The plan was to head up into the primary rainforest for a while, then float back down, checking out a few waterfalls as we went.

The rainforest here is primary, which means it’s never been logged or farmed. The food chain and circle of life has been relatively insulated from human actions here. Even the plastic that you can find on every beach, no matter how remote, was absent from here.

The paddling was easy, we saw turtles and a heron, and toucans – hidden high in the forest – were vocal. Their call is distinctive, after a few days in Costa Rica you’ll most likely recognize them as easily as you might do a cuckoo. A tour like this shows you beauty, yes, and it also encourages you to slow down, to open up your senses, and to leave space for magic to happen. You can’t force a scarlet macaw to flash across the sky, you just have to be alert to the possibility that it may happen. So we sat quietly, eyes and ears wide open. A toucan broke from cover and flew overhead, giving us a few seconds of sheer joy and wide smiles. Then we refocused, scanning the banks, there was another heron, some smaller birds, and large fish below, and many wide-winged insects hovering. The weight of western life that I hadn’t even noticed was there began slipping away. The things that mattered so much back in the city were forgotten, not because I didn’t care any more but because this was the real thing, this right here around and within us, and as such it demanded me take notice of it.

Soon we came to a mini rapid where we had to get out and pull the boat up and over the rocks to carry on.

There was another chance to climb and jump. My partner Nita gave it a pass, I gave it a go.

Soon after that the river narrowed and Ricardo said “OK, you can jump out if you want, it’s time to float back downstream!” Ah, now I understood, that’s what the life jackets were for. The river hadn’t required them as it was very calm but now we’d be using them as buoyancy aids as we floated back to the Pacific!

There was no rush, we let the river current take us. There was also no reason to worry. There were no crocodiles or other animals here that might give us cause for concern. When we got to the mini rapids Ricardo told us to keep our arms by our sides and float in feet first and this worked fine. Another toucan flashed by, I was laying on my back looking up between the trees at the time it’s bright yellow beak and shiny black body emerged from the deep green. A wonderful moment, impossible to capture either with camera or words. It has to be experienced to be understood.

We rounded a corner and saw the canoe pulled up on the bank, with Ricardo beckoning us to get out of the river and follow him up the side of a waterfall. The climbing was easy as a rope had been put in place, and over the next half hour we explored a series of waterfalls and pools that led us further back into the forest.

It was time to head back, floating once again. We could’ve gone in the canoe – no activity is pushed on your during the tour – but when might we get the chance again to float down a rainforest river towards the Pacific Ocean?!! Best to take these opportunities with both hands whenever they present themselves I think.

We drank tea back at the turtle rescue centre then headed off with Ricardo to have lunch at the Life For Life hostel, about a half hour walk away. The walk was mostly flat and offered some outstanding views.

The photo above shows the beach that the hostel is located right next to. We’d asked for a vegan lunch and that was easily catered for; we had rice, beans, lentil fritter, a vegetable dish, salad, and a fresh coconut to wash it down along with some lime-lemonade.

After lunch Ricardo showed us around. Rates for a stay here can be as low as $25 per night including 3 meals (you’ll need the meals as there are no shops or restaurants anywhere near) if you want to volunteer to help the sea turtle project, or around $45 per night if you just want to stay. All profits go to fund the sea turtle project. Here’s a look at the options; rooms, tents or hammocks.

The temperature stays warm at night so sleeping in a tent with a mesh wall, or a hammock, is preferable for many people who don’t like air conditioning.

The Rio Claro tour was so much fun, offering us experiences we’ve never had before. The money raised from it goes towards helping the sea turtles, which are endangered at the moment. We hope you’ll consider taking one of Ricardo’s ‘Rio Claro Aventuras’ eco tours or staying at the hostel if you’re in the area, or even volunteering if you have some spare time. Sea Turtle conservation can be hard work, especially if you have to walk the beach collecting eggs at night before the dogs or poachers get to them, but it’s extremely gratifying to see the babies hatching and scuttling off to the ocean to carry on the circle of life.

Learn all the details here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/sea-turtle-conservation-project and if you have any questions and want to communicate with somebody in English you can contact Caroline at cazerra@yahoo.co.uk

You can also find Rio Claro Tours on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/lifeforlifehostel/



Life For Life Sea Turtle Rescue – The Volunteer Experience

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Thu, February 06, 2020 10:20PM

We met Caroline when we visited the Life For Life Sea Turtle Rescue Project in the Osa Peninsula, on the southern Pacific coastline of Costa Rica. Caroline is from England and was volunteering at the project for 10 days.

We asked her a few questions about her experience as a volunteer. If after reading you’re inspired to volunteer at Life For Life yourself, feel free to contact Caroline for more details on cazerra@yahoo.co.uk (she’s now volunteering as a coordinator for the project back in England) and check out the volunteering page on the Life For Life website for all details, including how to get there, what you’ll be doing, and what it’s going to cost you, here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/sea-turtle-conservation-project

Hi Caroline! How did you arrange your stay at Life For Life? Did you look into volunteer opportunities before you left England? 

Yes, I did do some research on the internet before I left, but its so hard to pick something from the internet. I only had a month away from work in total and I wanted it to be awesome, so in the end I decided to not arrange anything and just arrive in Costa Rica and see which way the wind took me.

What led to you volunteering with Life For Life for the 10 days then?

I had been in Costa Roca for 2 weeks and had arrived on the Osa Peninsula for Christmas.  I was staying at a tent camp and the camp suggested I go on Ricardo’s River Claro tour. Ricardo organises the Life For Life project, and the Rio Claro Tours raise funds to keep the project going. I had spoken to other travellers at the camp who had done the tour before and they told me it was the best tour they had done in Costa Rica. Well, I had to go there after those recommendations.  I was only an hours walk from the River Claro but I had a guide who took me bird spotting on the way, there was lots to see, and when I arrived at the river I met Ricardo and saw his sign saying he needed volunteers.  We got chatting and as I was looking for somewhere to spend my last 10 days in Costa Rica I said I would come back the next day with my rucksack and volunteer for him for the rest of my trip.  This was the best decision of my trip.

Ricardo at the sea turtle hatchery.
Caroline during the Rio Claro Tour.
Rio Claro view from the canoe.

Can you describe what you did as a volunteer? 

During my stay I helped at the Turtle Project Centre which is located at the beach and the mouth of the River Claro Wildlife Refuge.  There were no turtles laying while I was there but there was still plenty to do. I chatted with tourists and gave them information about the project and the work Ricardo was doing. I made jewellery which we sold to raise funds for the project, using some shells I found from the beach. 

I also helped out when the River Claro tours got busy by making tea for guests. While I was there Ricardo taught me how to make some Costa Rican food and especially the fried plantain which was delicious. In the evening back at the hostel I chatted to guests and swung in the hammock.

The view of sunset and the Pacific from the hammock.
View from the hammock deck.

What about accommodation, food, and costs? 

I stayed in a tent when I was at the hostel, but the best nights were when we stayed at the turtle project. There was no electricity so we cooked by head torch and candle light and listened to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach. Ricardo kept me well fed with typical Costa Rican beans and rice and lots of vegetables. I am a vegetarian and so is Ricardo so this was really great for us both. I left a small donation at the end of my stay to contribute to the project, but apart from that I did not need any money whilst I was volunteering.

Tent accommodation at the Life For Life hostel.

Has your perspective on the environment, and sea turtles, changed as a result of your time there at Life For Life? 

Definitely, I have a much wider understanding of the threats to turtles and the plastic pollution of the sea.  Being in this remote location I saw how much rubbish washes up on the beach.  Its incredibly sad how much plastic is in the ocean.  Since returning to the UK my shopping habits have changed and I am very focused on reducing my plastic now.

Some of the plastic collected on the beach, on display at the centre.

What are your main take away thoughts from your experience? 

This experience was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences, although I will go there again!  I have never experienced such a wonderful, remote, beautiful place as the area around the Life for Life project.  I learnt so much from Ricardo, and my environmental focus has strengthened as a result.

View from the path between the Life For Life hostel and sea turtle project.

Will you be going back, or using your experience in similar projects, do you think? 

I will definitely go back.  Ricardo and I became great friends at Life for Life and I am now a friend of the project.  Now I am at home I am using my internet skills to find Ricardo more volunteers.  I am dreaming of my next visit and I hope it won’t be too long before I am back there helping the sea turtles.

Caroline, Ricardo and Trek and Run’s Nita.

If you’re inspired to volunteer at the Life for Life project yourself, feel free to contact Caroline for more details on cazerra@yahoo.co.uk and check out the volunteering page on the Life For Life website here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/sea-turtle-conservation-project



Mid Morning Tour of La Paz Waterfall Gardens, San Jose, Costa Rica

Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Thu, January 30, 2020 09:21AM

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a privately owned ecological attraction near to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica and likely where you’ll fly to when you visit the country) that offers spectacular waterfalls, hiking, and animal encounters, and a solid environmental education program.

We often fly in and out of San Jose and like not to rush our onward transfers after a long flight, or to chance getting back to the airport from either coasts on the day of leaving (roads can be very busy and buses can be late/delayed). So this means we have time to spare in San Jose, and this time we chose to take a tour to these gardens with a company called Mid Morning La Paz Waterafall Gardens Tour. You can find the company on Facebook here – https://www.facebook.com/WaterfallGardensTourMidMorning

or you can send them a message via the La Paz Gardens official website, since they’re the official tour company working in partnership with the property. You can find that page here – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php

In summary, we loved our day there. The drive to La Paz, winding through coffee plantations as the road climbs up and over the continental divide, was a beautiful surprise. Kind of like Switzerland at times with it’s lush pastures, but also with volcanos! Our guide, Olman, was a kind, enthusiastic and knowledgeable local man who spoke perfect English (also German and of course Spanish), he made for a wonderful companion. And the park itself was beautifully landscaped, with waterfalls as impressive as any we’ve seen during our 4 tours of Costa Rica (they were also more accessible than most, too. If you can walk up and down paved pathways, you can reach the viewpoints, no problem).

Olman picked us up in central San Jose at 10am. That’s why the tour is called the ‘Mid Morning’ tour. Most tours out of the city start earlier (which is nice in a way as sunrise is a wonderful time to be up and about) but one of the great pleasures of being in Costa Rica for us is waking up slowly over a great cup of local coffee as the early sun streams through the window, so a 10am start time was perfect for us as it allowed us to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

It also meant the rush hour traffic was over, so we were able to move easily out of the city in the direction of the mighty Poas Volcano. We stopped briefly to get a view over the central valley, where San Jose is…

…and then we were off again, heading upwards, passing coffee plantations. Olman drove up a side road so we could get a good view of a coffee field with Poas in the background…

…and then we continued on into the plantation centre, where we got out and looked around. The panorama so reminded me of the vineyards of Tuscany, which I’d toured early in 2019. Rows and rows of greenery, dotted with red, only here it wasn’t grapes but ripe coffee.

The fields were bordered with flower and rainbow eucalyptus. I’d never even heard of such trees before, their multi coloured trunks are incredible.

We bought some coffee in the shop, enjoyed the view from the terrace for a while more…

…then continued upwards, past clumps of blue hydrangea and green pastures grazed by cattle under the clearest of skies.

We’d never expected the drive to La Paz to be such a thrill but it was truly spectacular and by the time we got out of the van, about 90 minutes after we’d been picked up in San Jose, we were smiling widely and very excited to be on the tour.  Olman led us into the reception area and introduced us to some of the staff. He takes tours to La Paz almost daily so he’s very well known there.

“Over 95% of the 120 staff here come from nearby towns and villages,” he explained, “La Paz offers many opportunities, and has done a lot of good for the local economy.”

We exited the reception to the site of the mighty Poas Volcano across the valley, rising out of a vision of banana leaves and rainforest. Amazing.

To our right were washrooms, to our left a feeding station for hummingbirds. Now, being animal lovers, we don’t like to see animals in captivity or being fed unnaturally, and we were to see a lot of that in La Paz over the next few hours. It would be easy to pass a negative judgement, but having toured many a national park and animal rescue centre around Costa Rica and indeed the world and spoken at length to the people working in them, we understand that there are many issues to take into account that should prevent us from passing any sort of judgement at all. 

Signs around La Paz state that none of the animals you see there have been taken from the wild, that they’d been entrusted to the care of La Paz by the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry, that many of them had been kept illegally as pets before coming there, and that for various reasons they couldn’t be released back into the wild.

Let’s delve into that a little. What might prevent an animal being released back into the wild? Several things; here is a short list of actual cases we have personally encountered at other rescue centres.

1/ A crocodile that was so well treated by its owners that it loved humans, so when it was confiscated it still moved towards human voices when it heard them. It had to be kept captive because if it’d been released and had moved towards humans in the wild, they wouldn’t know it was friendly, and they’d most probably kill it. 

2/ Spider monkeys that understand, after being kept as pets, that they’re stronger and more aggressive than most humans, to the extent that they lose their fear of us. When released into the wild they often become pests, attacking humans for food, and then the humans find a way of killing them. In fact, the Costa Rican government commissions yearly culls of spider monkeys that were once tame and have lost their fear of humans. It’s not ideal to keep them in cages, but at least they’re alive and helping their species by educating the public about why we shouldn’t keep wild animals as pets.

3/ A cage may seem small, but it’s most likely bigger than the space the animal was being kept in before it was rescued. 

4/ In the case of the toucans and scarlet macaws that you see at La Paz, some of them have clipped wings, or wings that are faulty due to accidents (flying into glass windows is a problem for birds in all countries), and others are so used to humans that they couldn’t survive at all in the wild. At least at La Paz they are able to live, they’re providing that public education I’ve spoken of, and also they’re an attraction. Tourists pay to enter places like La Paz to get close to them (they’re beautiful, so it’s understandable) and that money goes to support the whole centre, including all the other animals and the rescue program. 

5/ Finally, for now, animals that are raised in captivity often don’t have an idea of what they should eat, or what is looking to eat them. They can’t hunt well, or defend themselves. To set them free would be sending them to their deaths.

One day we hope that all animals will be free and people will be educated and brave enough to live with them in harmony, but until that day comes we hope tourists choose where to spend their money wisely, and support animal rescue centres and education programs that are working towards helping animals. There are almost 300 animal rescue centres in Costa Rica and unfortunately some of them are just tourist traps, using animals to take your money. We think La Paz is one of the good ones and that it’s worth your money, and that it will spend it in service of the environment and the animals that you will see there. 

Ok, back to our tour. We passed the hummingbirds, a fair few tourists were photographing them, it’s understandable, they glittered in the sun and looked so delicately innocent and beautiful. Some fed from the sugar water dispensers, I was unsure about how good that was for them (it’s no good for us, so likely not great for them either) but they did have the option of feeding from flowers or flying off into the forest and like the other animals here they were responsible for bringing tourist money in to support the less visually exciting elements of the park, so we understood what was going on. (After returning home I looked at the La Paz website and found this very interesting page, which does go into detail about the hummingbirds and the feeding – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/hummingbirds.php)

We moved down a path, under the shade of towering ferns, and into the aviary.

We’d seen macaws and toucans in the wild quite often during the previous couple of weeks (in Carara National Park and in the areas around Drake Bay, where a toucan sat about 2 meters from our hotel balcony, and macaws swooped down to feed from a tree under which we were having a picnic) and it was always a huge thrill, and bearing in mind all I’ve said about cages and animals in captivity, we now appreciated seeing them up close here. 

It’s a privilege to be this close to wild animals, but one should take into account that this is not what one should expect to happen all the time, and that animals can find proximity to humans quite stressful if they neither chose the situation and haven’t got a clear exit. If you come here, please don’t try to touch them (we saw some tourists doing this, it seemed to disturb the birds a lot). We moved slowly and let the birds come to us if they wished. It was magical to be there. These birds really help you appreciate how incredible our world is. We were sad that for various reasons they couldn’t be free, but at least they were alive and with others of their own kind instead of being kept alone in a small cage. We left with a true appreciation for how magnificent they are.

We passed through the sloth house, and then the butterfly house, where Olman pointed out the eggs of a Blue Morpho on the tops of leaves, and their caterpillars underneath. He didn’t need to point out the actual butterflies, they’re huge! 

A Blue Morpho egg.
A Blue Morpho caterpillar.
A Blue Morpho, about 4 or 5 inches from wing tip to tip.

Then it was time for lunch, and what a lunch it was, in a spectacular location.

One of my plates.
The view from our table. Beautiful.
The tables further into the restaurant had views of a waterfall.

It was buffet style with lots of options (rice, beans, many local dishes and salads, fruit, pizza, garlic bread, fries, juices, and more), and the restaurant was so open plan and peaceful that a rare Black Guan flew in from the nearby forest and began walking about. This turkey-like bird is a much-wanted bird on many a bird watcher’s target list and is considered ‘Near Threatened’ because it has such a small range and is susceptible to hunting pressure. But here it was, wandering around the restaurant, offering us a rare sighting as we ate. Fantastic. 

After lunch we visited the monkeys and cats. One of the cats was 22 years old. In the wild she would have been lucky to reach 15. Her enclosure was pretty large, larger than the condo she’d been kept in before her rescue, and I was happy to see her still active and living out her days in peace. 

Jaguar.
Puma.
The puma enclosure.

Next came the orchid garden. My partner is just studying landscape gardening and we’re both keen on house plants so this was another place to pause, study the available information, admire the possibilities, learn and gain inspiration. 

There was much to educate us in the snake and frog houses, we skim read the extensive notices that told of how venom is collected, how most bites occur when locals are working in the fields beside snakes, and the facts and figures that offered so much more than the newspaper headlines that are designed more to frighten us than inform us.

It was a great opportunity to take photos of the frogs as they were all free to move around the ponds but easily seen, which they aren’t always in the wild.

Then we passed through a traditional homestead where coffee was ground old style, where we tasted sugar cane juice and where outside cattle roamed.  

The paths down to and between the 5 waterfalls are all laid with solid flagstone and are the most easily accessible in the country. The lower falls, called ‘La Paz’, is one of the country’s more famous waterfalls as tourists driving to Arenal pass by it on the roadside and more often than not stop to take photos. It’s scenic, but perhaps not so scenic as the falls further up in the property, which we explored.

There are viewing platforms above, halfway down (at one point almost behind) and at the bottom of each falls, making it a fine place to stroll and to linger, soaking up the atmosphere whilst you perhaps get soaked by the spray (not compulsory, only if you want to get close!). The jungle is so lush, there’s birdcall and the roar of rushing water all around and the gardeners have done a superb job of getting the sightlines spot on. If it’s waterfall photos you’re looking for, they are waiting for you to take them here. We spent an hour in this area but could easily extend that to half a day or more. I urge you to put aside a few hours for it. 

There are way more trails on the property than we managed to cover and we hope to return one day soon and stay in the onsite hotel, the Peace Lodge, so that we might explore them all at varying times of the day when the changing light would offer different insights into this landscape that is dripping in color and atmosphere. 

One of the information signs beside the path.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens really does offer a fine day out in the most beautifully landscaped gardens. The lunch is tasty and eaten in wonderful surroundings, Olman knows the gardens intimately and answered any questions we had (or in the case of a single bug we saw on an orchid which had antenna on its nose and which we didn’t know the name of, he knew the staff member to ask), and the walking trails and waterfalls offer you the dream you probably had of tropical Costa Rica in an accessible format. 

We were exceptionally happy with our tour, and consider it one of the finest available from San Jose. I can’t imagine anybody visiting La Paz with Olman and not being overwhelmingly happy that they did so. 

If you want to learn about the countries wildlife before you begin your tour, La Paz is a good place to do it. Olman can pick you up from the airport and bring you straight here before your onward travel, or bring you here before your flight, or any variety of combinations, he’s 100% flexible. Just email him your requirements. He’s a friendly, knowledgeable and extremely accommodating guy, and this is a great tour.

You can reach him by email at waterfallgardenstour@gmail.com

Or by phone in Costa Rica on +(506) 83714679
If you’re in the U.S.A you can phone 209 207 3140

And the La Paz official tour page website is here http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php




A Tale of Tallinn – Part Two

Runs, Tours & Experiences Posted on Mon, November 04, 2019 12:33PM

Saturday, 7th of September. It’s the second day in Tallinn and the best way to start it is with a biiiig breakfast at the Sokos Hotel Viru! It includes food and drinks for all possible preferences and tastes so one could not really get out of there and still be hungry ?

The day before the marathon is usually one where I have to think carefully about what to eat and do. The meals have to be rich in carbs and veggies and a higher amount of liquids (to be understood as water, tea or similar) is required. All the ‘extra weight’ in my body has to be eliminated before the race, so that I will be able to finish it without stomach problems and not encounter moments where my energy goes down to 0. Activities that cause tiredness should also be reduced to the minimum.

With that in mind, the big healthy breakfast was the best choice to give me energy for the first half of the day and then to let me make better nutrition choices for the other half of it. As for the activities to undertake, well this part is also tricky. On one hand, being the first time ever in Tallinn and having most of the day free is an excellent opportunity to explore the city as much as I can. But Tallinn has many beatiful areas outside the historical city centre and walking around the city to cover them would leave me super tired at the end of the day! ?

The Solution: the Hop On Hop Off Bus! One 24h ticket was valid for 3 different sightseeing lines through the cities, each line having the color red, blue or green. The buses were equipped with audio guides in 9 languages, where each point of interest was narrated as the bus drove close to it on its route. The visitors could “hop on” and “hop off” as many times as they wanted, during the validity of their ticket. ([1])

Well, that turned out to be really helpful: I could see all the important parts of the city without spending a physical effort to get there!

A self-driving car

The Green Line

Strike a pose!

Chill before the marathon ?

After so much sightseeing on different lines, it was time to watch the next event of the Tallinn Marathon weekend: the 10K race! With more than 7000 participants, it was actually the most attended event of all. ([2])

Waiting for the runners at the Drama Theatre

After the race, the time came to find a good restaurant with vegan menu, in order to provide my body with a healthy carbo-loading before the big race. The Basiilik restaurant was close to the hotel and offered a menu with many options, so why not giving it a try? ? ([3])

Carrot-pumpkin purree soup

Spinach ravioli with vegan cheese  and Marathon map

I also had a pizza among these meals, because something told me that for a proper carbo-loading I should not stop after the super yummy carrot-pumpkin soup and the spinach ravioli… yeah, just looking at the marathon map was enough ??

The day ended with my usual pre-race routine, before going to sleep: 

  • T-shirt, shorts, shoes, cap, rain jacket, running watch, race bib etc. ✅
  • action-cam, selfie-stick and accessories ✅
  • check the course map and profile one more time ✅
  • arrange the logistics ✅
  • set the alarm to not oversleep ⏰ – it happens rarely, because usually I do not sleep a lot before the big race, but anyway ✅

Everything seems to be prepared for the marathon. 

However, am I really prepared for this?? ?

External references:

[1] https://citytour.ee/en/

[2] http://www.jooks.ee/en/tallinn-marathon/results

[3] https://basiilik.ee/



A Tale of Tallinn – Part One

Runs, Tours & Experiences Posted on Sat, October 26, 2019 07:34AM

Friday, 6th of September 2019. It’s almost 1PM and the LOT Airlines plane lands in a small airport in Northern Europe…

We’re in Tallinn, Estonia!!

Wait, where?? Take a look at the map ?

That’s actually the northermost point I have ever been to in my whole life! This definitely calls for a Marathon!

I’ve heard many great things about Tallinn and Estonia before my trip: best preserved Old Town in Northern Europe, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, the only country in Europe where you can vote online, friendly people, a lot of nature and the list goes on. What else could this beautiful city possibly offer in order to make me book flight tickets and land there on the 6th of September? ?

The Marathon, of course.

There was no time for a first walk around the city, because the organizers were kind to invite me to attend the press conference which was starting in an hour. Luckily, the trip with the tram from the airport to the city centre takes only 15 minutes and the hotel was close to the press conference location. 

That would be efficiency summed up in a few words: fast commuting, quick check-in, so perfectly on time for the press conference.

Press Conference time!! The selected location was the Tallinn City Council, a pretty old building with a vintage style. The top athletes who arrived for the race weekend were sitting at a table. Opposed to them, some Estonian press and television was preparing to record the discussion. Ok the moderator has just started to talk, let’s go live on the Facebook Trek and Run page! He is saying something in Estonian, now some of the Estonian guests take the microphone and continue speaking in Estonian.. sadly no English translation for us ?

Luckily we received the lists of race favourites for the 10k, 21k and Marathon so I could make a better idea about the importance of the event. There were no super big names on the scene, but I could recognize the names of Lily and Leila Luik – two of the famous Estonian triplets who competed at the Rio 2016 Olympics ([1]). (The two sisters ran the 10k race in Tallinn finishing in 3rd and 4th place)

The running triplets were not present at the press conference. Instead, another Estonian local hero, Liina Tsernov, was there and said a few words about her expectations before the 10k race.. well, at least that is what I think she said, since there was no English translation ?

Afterwards we had a few words from Roman Fosti, the runner whom I could recognize from the Marathon promo picture, and Nina Lauwaert from Belgium, competing for the 21k race. Luckily for me, Nina Lauwaert did not speak Estonian, but English. I was relieved. She told that her 21k is actually a preparation for the Berlin Marathon, where she needs to achieve a qualifying time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The microphone was passed to the Kenyan marathoners, Moses Too and Bernard Sang, who were hoping for good weather conditions so they could do their best at the marathon. (Bernard Sang did not break his Personal Best but still finished in 2nd place with the time of 2:13.47)

Nina Lauwaert (BEL)
Roman Fosti (EST)


After another round of talks in Estonian, the press conference finished and each athlete was approached by journalists for separate interviews. I used the moment to have a few words with Belgian marathoner Nina Lauwaert. She told me that she was running the Halfmarathon in Tallinn as a preparation for the Berlin Marathon at the end of the month. Having missed the qualification for the upcoming Doha IAAF World Championships, her goal is now to run under the 2h30′ mark which will allow her to book the tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The qualification criteria for Tokyo are actually more complex and finishing under the time limit is only one of the options ([2]). (Nina Lauwaert finished the 21k in 3rd position with 1:12.23) ?

Then it was the time to talk to the Estonian local hero Roman Fosti, also running the 21k in Tallinn as a preparation for the Doha World Championships, where he is targeting to finish under 2h20′ in the Marathon. The heat in Doha will play an important role so it will be interesting to see how will he adapt to it. He intends to participate in the Valencia Marathon later this year. We also discussed about the upcoming Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, where Eliud Kipchoge will try to run the Marathon under 2 hours ([3]). (Roman Fosti finished the 21k in 4th place with 1:04:53) ?


So much athletics information in just one hour.. wow!! The press conference really brought me directly into race mood. It was great for me to transition from the avid athletics races couch watcher / amateur runner to interviewing top athletes and get their feelings before the next challenge. I liked their positive attitude, determination and focus towards their big goals. Winning every race or breaking a personal record every time is not feasible. Making small and smart steps to achieve the big goal will be more rewarding than pushing the limits when it is not necessary. ?


Ok time to get some Tallinn flair, we’re in the famous Old Town so let’s walk around a bit..

Soprus Cinema
 Town Hall
 Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The first event of the weekend, the We Run TLN 5K race, took place later in the afternoon so it was about time to put on those running shoes, watch the runners and do a first run through the city centre! Let’s watch some first impressions:

Running in Tallinn is great!

Time is flying and the sun was setting over Tallinn. In other words, no more sports, but two other lovely activities: dinner and sleep. Good night, Tallinn!! ?


External References:

[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/sport/olympics-estonias-luik-triplets-make-history-in-rio-marathon

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2020_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Qualification

[3] https://www.ineos159challenge.com/


Tallinn Marathon Results: https://new2019.championchip.ee/results/1225



Scuba and Snorkeling with Life Planet Project, Costa Rica

Canoeing & Swimming, Tours & Experiences Posted on Tue, August 27, 2019 02:32PM

We went on a scuba and snorkeling day tour with Carolina and Davide of Life Planet Project and consider them among the most ethically sound, caring tour guides we’ve ever experienced, anywhere in the world. We also saw more sharks than ever before out at Cano Island (even compared to when we went on a 2 week liveabord diving tour with the MV Sharkwater), and also learned so much about the ocean, the mangroves, and Costa Rican culture. If you’re looking for an honest, ethical company offering great land and sea tour experiences, you’ve found them.

We started our day with a transfer to Sierpe, from where we took a boat downriver and out into the Pacific, heading for Cano Island. The images and film below tell the story of our day.

Davide telling us about what was to come, as we sat on the boat in Sierpe.
The views as we motored downriver were spectacular.
The Sierpe River really is beautiful.
We stopped frequently to see monkeys, birds and sloths in the jungle that fringed the river.
Approaching the river mouth. Between the two headlands is the opening into the Pacific.
En route to Cano Island. We saw dolphins as we went, you can see them in the film at the end of this article.
Whilst some of us snorkeled, some of us went diving.
There were plenty of fish, and also sharks.
We didn’t get too close. The company is as ethical as they come and close interaction with wild animals is not encouraged. We agree with this wholeheartedly.
More sharks.
Fish and sharks. I love being underwater!
We even saw a hammerhead shark! It was too deep for my camera to work (nearly 30 metres) but I got a shot of us celebrating when we surfaced.
Then it was lunchtime.
Excellent pasta served up in a coconut shell.
Lunch with good friends. Tastes even better after you’ve just swum with sharks!
After another dive we went ashore to Cano Island, this is the rangers station and museum.
The view from a point about 10 minute walk inland.
Enjoying a stroll on the beach.
Then it was time to leave Cano Island and head back to the Sierpe River via a different route.
Enjoying the coastline as we motor back.
Davide explains how the mangrove forests are being destroyed and what that means for the oceans. The mangroves are the nursery for many species of animal and fish.
Another view of the Sierpe as we neared the town.

The emphasis all day was on showing us why it’s important to preserve the environment. It was a great tour, and this educational aspect was the icing on the cake. It’s worth re-printing a piece from their website here, we wish all tour companies thought like this!

“We aim at sharing the natural beauties of our planet, on land and underwater, promoting exciting activities merged with environmental awareness and collaboration with the key figures of today’s environmental conservation movement.

We have a desire to help nature, to give back. We want tourism to stop leeching our planet. We want to raise consciousness and give you the experience of a lifetime in the meanwhile. We want you to learn. To see with your own eyes. And we want you to have fun, lots of it!!!”

We recommend you look Life Planet Project up if you are in the Manuel Antonio/Dominical/Uvita area and want an ethically sound, fun day tour.

Check out what they offer on their website – https://www.lifeplanetproject.com/

Here’s a short video we made showing highlights of our day.



Hacienda Baru Guided Jungle Walk, Dominical, Costa Rica

Tours & Experiences Posted on Tue, August 20, 2019 12:57PM

Hacienda Baru offers a genuine Costa Rican wildlife experience, as opposed to the problematic wildlife experience you’ll most likely have at nearby Manuel Antonio National Park (where there are hoards of people, many of whom feed the animals, which in turn creates a whole host of problems and unnatural experiences).

We took a 3-hour rainforest walk at Hacienda Baru with a very knowledgeable guide and saw sloths, many birds, frogs, lizards and peccary boar, as well as the amazing, beautiful rainforest.

Walking inland with our guide.
An Aracari, viewed through our guides spotting scope.
Vines, creepers, buttress roots; a fascinating environment.
Most reasonably fit people could handle the hiking trails here. There are lowland trails with little elevation change and more challenging trails heading inland and uphill.
The view from inland back down to the hacienda’s shoreline.
It pays to walk slowly and look all around. This minute frog was on a leaf at our feet.
A highlight for us were the trees and plants. There is incredible variety.
A Trogon, viewed once again through our guides spotting scope.

The owner of Hacienda Baru is Jack Ewing and we advise that you read his book ‘Monkeys are made of Chocolate’ to get you in the mood for your visit, and to discover things about the local people, history, and wildlife that you’ll never find in any other wildlife or travel guide.

You can buy the book online, or in the hacienda shop.
Chocolate pods growing wild!

After our guided tour we made our way down to the reserve’s deserted beach on our own.

The shady route to the beach. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the hacienda shop.
We stopped often to admire the trees, there are some magnificent specimens here.
There were also plenty of lizards at the side of the path. Look close mid left and you’ll see it!
The beach is wild and unspoilt.
When the heat of the beach got too much we treated to the shade of the palms.

Hacienda Baru seems to us a perfect example of how to operate a wildlife reserve; it’s a must-see attraction if you’re staying in Dominical or anywhere near. To learn more, visit the Hacienda Baru website – https://www.haciendabaru.com/



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